San Diego gorillas recovering from COVID-19, zoo says

(Reuters) - A troop of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park is recovering from an outbreak of COVID-19 that sickened several of the group’s eight members, the zoo said in a news release on Monday.

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The gorillas began to fall ill on Jan. 6, when two of them started coughing, the statement by San Diego Zoo Global said.

Tests of fecal matter conducted on Jan. 11 showed that an unknown number were infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, likely contracted after exposure to a zoo employee who was infected but asymptomatic.

The strain that infected them was “a new, highly contagious strain of the coronavirus, recently identified in California,” the zoo said.

After the diagnosis, the gorillas were quarantined together at the park.

The oldest gorilla, a 48-year-old silverback named Winston, was diagnosed with pneumonia and heart disease, the zoo said. He was treated with heart medications, antibiotics and an antibody therapy for COVID-19 that came from a supply not allowed for use in humans.

“The veterinary team who treated Winston believe the antibodies may have contributed to his ability to overcome the virus,” the zoo said.

The zoo organization said it worked with a network of collaborators that included the San Diego County Department of Public Health, the Great Ape Heart Project, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife among others to help the gorillas, all of whom are expected to recover.

The zoo also plans to use a version of a COVID-19 vaccine not meant for humans to protect animals at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The staff member believed to have infected the animals wore protective gear and followed COVID-19 safety protocols, the zoo organization said.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Marguerita Choy